Neil Gaiman, comic rock star and ‘90s demigod, has proven almost, almost unfilmable. His most successful offering to date is the 2009 animated film Coraline—possibly because it was animated, allowing for his dark whimsy to roam untethered by reality. Another attempt was made with 2007’s Stardust, which was generally received as campy and a little over-the-top. Adapting him to television has been difficult, with limited-run shows like Mirror Mask and Neverwhere making relatively small splashes. And the attempt to get Sandman on screen is almost mythical at this point.
But then came prestige television.
With the success of Game Of Thrones, which felt unfilmable in scope, beloved-but-labyrinthine works get a second chance, sprawled over several seasons. The TV network Starz has already seen success adapting a fantastical cult classic with its Outlander series, so pursuing a rich narrative like American Gods is a near no-brainer.
With the series arriving this Sunday, we thought we’d call Gaiman and hit him with a few questions about the challenges of adaptation and the importance of fantasy.
I read American Gods right after I graduated from college, in the winter, and it just felt so timely, drab, beautiful and Midwestern. I was noticing this time around, it seems so much more bright and colorful and sunny. Did you have any input over the overall feel of the show?
In terms of the look and feel and color, that was Bryan [Fuller, who co-created the series]. I suspect if I had been showrunning and directing it myself it would have been much more drab, but I like what they did very very much. It is a colorful America, but it feels just as American; just less gray and wintery.
At first, as someone who had lived in that world in their head, I found it jarring, but I came around to it.
What they also did was—and this was partly due to shooting schedule and partly due to all the things we want to have happen—[the novel] American Gods starts in the fall and goes straight into the winter; the TV American Gods starts in the spring, and we’ll get the spring and the summer, the fall and the winter. So we don’t get to the cold for a while yet—for a couple of seasons.
A couple of TV seasons or a couple of weather seasons?
A couple of TV seasons. We’ll probably be in Lakeside in the winter, which will probably be season three.
So you’re going to be able to deviate from the book and open up the world a bit. I imagine you’ll be able to explore the central battle in a much larger way if you’re opening it up to multiple seasons.
Exactly. And also some of the characters, like Mad Sweeney—in the book you only see him when Shadow crosses his path, whereas in the TV series we get to follow him. And once you have Mad Sweeney on board, the story grows by that amount. And with Laura, we’re allowed to follow Laura while Shadow is not seeing her, and following her story takes us into some really interesting places. I’m very much hoping we get a whole episode of Bilquis coming up. She’s so wonderful.
Doing Neverwhere in the '90s in the UK, we were ahead of our time in a bad way.
You have a great powerhouse cast here, but there is a moment in the first episode when you see Ian McShane as Wednesday in full regalia and he just became Wednesday for me. What was that like for you?
I think it’s a process that repeats over and over again, this weird moment where this thing in your head is made manifest. For me, the most moving and strange moment was episode four, which is Laura’s story. On the one hand, nothing in there is from the book. On the other hand, everything in there is implied by the character that we meet in the book. And I just took so much joy in that. Yes, this is what I would have done if I had an infinite number of pages and I could have gotten over there at some point. There was always the idea that we wanted to make Laura as important to the story as Shadow or Wednesday.
So this is your first time in prestige television. As someone who has adapted for the screen before, how is this area different?
TV is different because the speed is faster. It always feels like a bit more of a machine. The director is slightly less important; without wishing to minimize what directors do, a director comes and goes and you have a style already set and so forth. It’s been really interesting for me, the way television has changed over the years. Doing Neverwhere in the '90s in the UK, we were ahead of our time in a bad way. The mechanisms to make the thing that we needed to make did not exist. As a result, we’re suddenly shooting 28-minute episodes on video and it looks terrible and they are all too short and the director just came off a sitcom and is about to go off to another sitcom and the glorious thing in my head did not happen. And I had to eventually go away and write another in order to get the thing in my head out into the world.
What do you think the role of fantasy is, when the world it’s being broadcast into is more troubling?
It serves two things. I think one is escape: It gives you a way out of a unendurable situation and, with luck, it gives you some of the tools to go back to the unendurable situation and fix some of the things that are wrong. And I also think it allows you to see things that you are too familiar with, to get a handle on them from a different angle. And that difference in angle allows you to reinvent and rediscover. Fantasy always leads you back to reality, and with luck it leads you back to reality better than you left it.
Read our Q&A with American Gods stars Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle here.